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Op-Ed on Rosa Parks--Please Forward

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  • Steve Chase
    The following opinion column on the true story of Rosa Parks s activism was first printed in the Keene Sentinel on Tuesday, November 1, 2005. The Keene
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1 4:13 AM
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      The following opinion column on the true story of Rosa Parks's activism
      was first printed in the Keene Sentinel on Tuesday, November 1, 2005.
      The Keene Sentinel grants full distribution or reprint rights to this
      piece as long as credit for first publication in the Sentinel is given.
      If you like this column, please forward it to your email contacts list,
      post it on listserves or blogs, or to reprint in organizational
      newsletters or other publications. I would love for this fuller story
      of her work to be more widely known.


      Thank You, Rosa Parks

      by Steve Chase

      Four years ago, I founded a one-of-a-kind master's program at Antioch
      New England Graduate School to train public interest advocates and
      grassroots organizers working for environmental protection, corporate
      accountability, and social justice. People have occasionally asked me
      what inspired me to dream up the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing
      program. My answer is always the same: Rosa Parks.

      Parks, who died at home last week, became famous in 1955 when she
      refused to move to the back of a segregated bus for a white man. She
      was immediately arrested, and her act of defiance sparked the
      Montgomery Bus Boycott, which won the first major victory against legal
      segregation in the South and launched a national movement for civil

      People can usually see how Rosa Parks sparked my interest in nonviolent
      activism for the common good. What they don't get is how she inspired
      my interest in activist training and education.

      Like most people, I used to think that Rosa Parks was just a tired,
      middle-aged seamstress who got fed up with the indignities of racism on
      the evening of December 1, 1955. However, when I was a teenager, an
      older Quaker activist told me the real story of Rosa Parks.

      For starters, Parks was a seasoned activist, not a novice. She had been
      an active member of her local NAACP chapter for over twelve years
      before refusing to move to the back of the bus, and she had
      participated in many discussions about how to launch a successful
      campaign against segregation. Contrary to the conventional story, her
      act of civil disobedience was pre-planned and aimed at sparking a
      powerful movement for freedom.

      Secondly, Parks was a trained activist. The summer before her famous
      act of civil disobedience, Parks attended a ten-day activist training
      workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. During a radio
      interview years later, Studs Terkel asked Parks what role Highlander
      played in her decision to act. Parks answered, "Everything."

      Highlander Folk School was founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton. His
      vision for the school was to bring poor and oppressed people together,
      encourage them to grapple with their everyday social problems, provide
      an arena for deep political reflection, and, ultimately, provide
      training workshops in the skills and strategies of social movement

      During the 1930s and the early 1940s, Highlander focused its
      educational programs on the southern labor movement. By the early
      1950s, Highlander moved into civil rights activism and Horton brought
      together blacks and whites interested in confronting the problem of

      To deepen the effectiveness of this work, Horton hired Septima Clark,
      the School's first black staff member, as his Education Director. A
      public school teacher who had been fired and blacklisted because of her
      volunteer work with the NAACP, Clark cemented Highlander's ties over
      the years with many of the people who eventually became leaders of such
      groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student
      Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Mississippi Freedom
      Democratic Party.

      At Highlander, these people were encouraged by both Horton and Clark to
      take what they learned and apply it in their own communities. As Horton
      said to generations of participants at Highlander's training workshops:
      "The way to use this information is not to say that we have learned a
      lot, and isn't it wonderful and great to have been at Highlander....
      You're here to act on it. This is education for action. Now, how are
      you going to act on this? Let's just plan what you're going to do when
      you go back."

      In her own recollection of Parks' first visit to Highlander, Septima
      Clark reports how Parks struggled with her fears over taking the kind
      of daring action against segregation being discussed by workshop
      participants and Highlander's trainers. As Clark remembers it: "Rosa
      Parks was afraid for white people to know that she was as militant as
      she was. She didn't even want to speak before the whites that she met
      at Highlander, because she was afraid they would take it back to the
      whites in Montgomery. After she talked it out in that workshop that
      morning and she went back home, then she decided that 'I'm not going to
      move out of that seat.'"

      With her dramatic action a few months later, Parks earned her "diploma"
      from Highlander and rightly became revered as the grandmother of the
      1960s Civil Rights Movement. Unknown to her, she also inspired the
      creation of a two-year activist training program in Keene, New
      Hampshire a little over 46 years after her big day.

      Thank you, Rosa Parks.

      Steve Chase is the director of the Department of Environmental Studies'
      Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program at Antioch New England
      Graduate School.

      Reprinted with permission from the Keene Sentinel, November 1, 2005

      Steve Chase
      Program Director
      Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program
      Department of Environmental Studies
      Antioch New England Graduate School
      40 Avon Street
      Keene, NH 03431
      603-357-3122 ext. 298
      603-357-0618 (fax)

      For information about the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program:

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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